"I pay taxes here and I can't vote so I'll say what I like," barks Elvis Costello, as he carefully examines the audience who've come to see him play live in this basketball arena. It could easily turn nasty because we are in Norfolk, Virginia, home of the biggest navy base in the world, and he's a bolshie singer-songwriter with a war to protest. Old pro that he is he offers up the sweeteners: long-haul favourites like "(The Angels Want To Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Alison" and jokes about his new wife, Canadian jazzwoman Diana Krall, and twin babies — "We called them Frank and Dexter so they could go into vaudeville when they grow up." But between these easements, he eyeballs these 8,000 Southerners and gives them Dick Cheney gags and, "This is a song about a war widow who's come to question what she's been told," before launching into "The Scarlet Tide." This is the theatre of reality, the foreigner chancing his arm. The crowd teeters, the collective reaction a kind of silent "Huh?" Then, after each successive volley from the stage, the rumbles of approval grow louder, until finally, when he closes with Nick Lowe's What's So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding, almost the whole crowd stands, cheering in approval; a small, momentary liberation and a salving of souls. An hour later — although departure feels like an offence against nature because the tour headliner is Bob Dylan — MOJO is hustled through the backstage labyrinth to Costello's big-beast tour bus.
We sit either side of the breakfast table half a step from the loo — which is handy given the inundatory extent of the hydration regime he follows pre-show to soothe his vocal chords. He looks, as he puts it, "more Phil Silvers than Buddy Holly" these days — "less hair more face. It's real, I'm not trying to pretend I'm 22" — but as idiosyncratically dapper as ever in his Scully Western shirt (black with silver embroidery) and trilby — one of two he alternates on tour. Throughout the four-hour drive to Washington he delivers an adrenalised, motormouthed, motorminded monologue about music... and life, death, marriage, divorce, children, parents, Yeats, Whitman, George Bush, Abraham Lincoln. After all, everything has context, and he is the great connector, so if he refers to encounters with Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, Peggy Lee and Dylan (who he's known since a chance 1978 encounter in Berlin) — let alone The Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, Anne Sofie von Otter and Allen Toussaint, who he's recorded albums with, and Italy's Atterbalieto, the Miami City Ballet and the Royal Danish Opera, who've all commissioned "classical" work from him — he's not dropping names, he's just tracing the natural course of a music life driven by unquenchable curiosity
That was quite something, coming to a southern US Navy town and criticising the Iraq War...
You have to speak. I partly live in this country and you're always told by bigots you have no place making statements from the stage. But Johnny Cash would sing a patriotic song and a questioning song in the same set. You get different reactions in different places.
Playing solo, though, the lyrical detail is exposed — lines like "Don't wanna be a soldier, Mamma / I don't want to die" [from John Lennon's "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier"], which you've added to the recorded version of "The River In Reverse." Was it touch and go tonight?
I know what I'm doing.
But do you know how an audience like that is going to react?
No. And that's good. I sang "The Scarlet Tide" with that "Bring the boys back home" verse a couple of years ago, duetting with Emmylou Harris, and as many people booed as cheered. But now they do want them home even if they supported the war. If there's dissent I'll say, "Thank you for listening even if you don't agree with me. You know what? That proves you're in a democracy." And there's no answer to that.
The last time I saw you was rather different: Glastonbury 2005.
Fucking dreadful! I don't care if I ever play England again. I'll say that right now. That gig made up my mind I wouldn't come back. I don't get along with it. We lost touch. It's 25 years since I lived there. I don't dig it, they don't dig me. A lot of good new bands still come out of England, but I just don't feel part of it. Music fans don't have the same attitude to age as they do in America where young people come to check out, say, Willie Nelson; they feel some connection with him and find a role for that music in their lives.
But you did play Liverpool with Allen Toussaint during the summer.
That was for a mate, Phil Hayes, who's fought the good fight to keep something going through the darkest days of Liverpool's culture. It's where most of my family comes from anyway. And now they're about to get a load of money landed on them as the European City Of Culture [in 2008]. Well, you know what happens, a lot of it vanishes. But I hope something of lasting value comes out of it like it did for Glasgow. But there again, on that tour the BBC asked Allen and me to do an interview and they kept us waiting in reception for ages and then they said they didn't want Allen on the show, they only wanted me. So I said, "OK, I won't do it!" Then they relented. What the fuck? This guy is a guest in what used to be my country, you're just embarrassing yourselves.
How important is playing live to you now?
It's what I really love to do. In fact, I'm not of a mind to record any more. There's no point. Making a record requires me to take all the money that the label advances me and give it to other people — musicians, producers and studio owners — and then I spend six months doing the record company's job for them because they won't pay anybody any more to do the things they used to do like promote and market. Why would I do that when I could be working for myself, opening for Bob Dylan? Anyway, in terms of recorded music the pact's been broken — the personal connection between the artist and the listener. MP3 has dismantled the intended shape of an album. And then everything is leaked, everything is stolen. So I play live, it happens in the moment, if I do a new song I might never play it again, and if you're not there you fuckin' miss it...
It seems a shame to declare you've stopped recording...
I don't want to make it sound melodramatic.
...when you've just made three of your best albums, When I Was Cruel, North and The Delivery Man, and you seem to be writing more openly and more personally than ever.
Sometimes writing songs for other people you relax your guard against your own reticence.
North must be the most intimate set of songs you've ever recorded. What led to that leap into a whole new way of writing?
It's probably hard work for someone who likes rock 'n' roll (laughs). This is where I have to be... not evasive but.., respectful. As is well known, my relationship [with second wife, Pogues bassist Caitlin O'Riordan ] broke up and then I met my new wife and, in fairly short order, we were engaged and married. A break-up is a mortifying thing when you've spent a long time with the conviction that you know the way you're going in life. I had an absolute conviction about my first marriage as well, but then I had all the weaknesses of a young man — which I can say out loud now because I can say it to my first wife, the mother of my first son.
It must have been a big decision to write songs about what happened and then make them into a record.
I think North was the most.., impelled work I ever made. I'd walk off-stage with my ears still ringing after playing When I Was Cruel and sit at any piano available writing those songs until three in the morning. It was a shock to me that I wanted to say these things. The stricken feeling... You don't know what's up. Then it gradually dawns on you there's a new light.
North brought something very different out of you.
The songs were absolutely as true as I knew how to write them and I went about it the most honest way I could. North made me abandon all the tricksy lyrical devices that I tended to get into. It was painted right out of life. So if you don't like it, I don't fuckin' care. I like it.
How is it for you, playing those songs a few years on?
I find it's easier for the audience to identify with it now I'm further away from the events and I can revisit the emotions. They're founded in real experience, but I don't have to be back in the fury or the desolation of the moment.
Within a few months of North you were involved with Diana Krall in her first self written album, The Girl In The Other Room, which is again very intimate, especially that track "Departure Bay."
She lost her mother. She had a bone marrow disease. She died at 60. When some people didn't understand why she suddenly wrote a bunch of songs — and thought it was my bad influence — she said, "Deed I Do won't do it right now." "Departure Bay" is a real place. Diana went there as a kid with her family and her mother's ashes are scattered there... It was the beginning of our life together and there were a number of things she needed to express. She had written pieces in her journals that were lyrical in nature, but she didn't have experience of shaping them into precise lyrical form. I added barely a word, but I edited them into singable form.
There seems to be a parallel between the two of you coming to express yourselves in a new, directly personal way during that period.
People have said to me that to some degree they're bookends, those two records. It's a nice compliment, but I think Diana's is much braver, that kind of loss is the more profound experience. A while ago I took her to Ronnie Scott's with my mother and my elder son, Matt. It was great, three generations of us together in a jazz club... I think about my family a lot now. Both my parents are 80.
You grew up drenched in music because your father [Ross MacManus] was a singer and trumpeter and your mother [Lilian] worked in record shops, but what exactly were you reflecting on when you wrote the song "45" for When I Was Cruel? What about this lyric, "Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat, every breath that I held for you, 45... bass and treble heal every hurt"?
My mother tells the story of me bringing a 45 home and saying "It's unbreakable!" and bending it.. and it broke. I knew every smudge on the back of every record intimately, I knew the printed information on it, I knew who was in every photograph on every sleeve, I knew who wrote the sleevenotes, I knew where every click on the record was. But that song wasn't just about me making a fetish of a record. I wrote it on my 45th birthday and it was like, "Hey, 45, it's a gun, it's a record, it's the year World War II ended." But it's also about my parents splitting up — and dividing up the records. My ma has the [Stan] Kenton records and my dad has the Dizzy [Gillespie] records, you know. And later on that was something I did, not once but twice. I'm not judging anyone...
You obviously stayed close to both parents.
I count on them. I'm really glad I have their advice now because of this extraordinary thing that happened to me past 50 — becoming a father again. And it's very precious to me to talk to my other son about things, and to see him have a relationship with the twins. Having young sons doesn't replace the love you have for your older son, it just enriches it because it makes you realise that some sort of common sense and knowledge has been achieved — and also what was sacrificed back in the ‘70s to just getting my job done.
Your father being in show business all his life, solo or singing with the Joe Loss dance band, did he give you any crucial advice?
One occasion I remember is when he came to see me at the Pavilion Theatre, London, Christmas of ‘78 I guess. The epitome of my pop-star moment: a 20-foot likeness of me over the door and lasers playing on it. But when he came backstage afterwards he was concerned about the audience. He said, "This is not a nice relationship — there's a spitefulness out there." He saw straight through it. An unhealthy tension. I remember standing at the back of the house and watching Debbie Harry — and getting a deeply uncomfortable feeling about the tension, it wasn't a healthy tension, the projection onto her by girls and boys. I went on a tour after that where we played Sunderland rather than Newcastle, Southport rather than Liverpool and Folkestone rather than Brighton — you know what I'm saying? I was trying to fuck it up. I knew I couldn't work like that for long.
An interviewer once asked your dad for his favourite song of yours and he gave a surprising answer, "The Birds Will Still Be Singing", from The Juliet Letters — he said he wanted it for his epitaph.
I wrote it after I was in a car crash — the closest I've come to dying!
Well, of course , I think he meant it positively because the chorus goes " Banish all dismay / Extinguish every sorrow / If I'm lost or I'm forgiven / The birds will still be singing".
I am very optimistic. I'm a sceptic, but not a pessimist. Despite my doleful-looking face. When I was an altar boy I used to do funerals, you know. I lived too far away to do weddings so l did funerals.
You've recorded so much it's hard to see specific turning points in your career. But was there a particularly significant transition period for you in the mid-'90s, maybe around the time you gave up drinking at the end of the All This Useless Beauty sessions?
I don't think I see any separation from the early ‘90s. I was writing a lot of good songs back then. Although when Mighty Like A Rose came out everybody said, "He's really gone mad." I was acting a little crazy. But I was moving towards being able to arrange with confidence, teaching myself to do the notation for string quartet, then for orchestras — and the band, in fact. But I did write a song for June Tabor which is very truthful called "I Want To Vanish" [1994, later recorded by Costello on All This Useless Beauty]. That was my frame of mind. I wanted to withdraw.
It feels like a suicide song.
Yeah. But it's not, it's more a philosophical song, in the same area as "Couldn't Call It Unexpected" [from Mighty Like A Rose] which is about faith and doubt — "I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again" — it's like an agnostic's prayer. I have faith still, but I also have doubt. I Want To Vanish is the same sort of song: "I'm certain as a lost dog pondering a signpost' is the key line. Then I wrote "This House Is Empty" — only the lyric [on Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, 1998]. Behind the romantic scenario is a personal statement about what was going on in my head. That was a dark place. To really believe myself incapable of further contribution, unable to say more. It was like a light going out inside you.
Have you any idea how that happened?
No. Nothing to do with my romantic life. Nor alcohol. I'd quit drinking by then. I was lucky. Stopped just like that. I'm sure I was an alcoholic by many people's definition. I could go through four bottles of wine in a night. But the feeling I had when I wrote This House Is Empty Now took me back to when I was eight years old. I had that dread that kids have sometimes
about mortality. You wake up thinking, "I won't be here one day," and you get that blind terror. My dad came to my bed and said, "Well, either there is something else or it'll be like a candle going out and you won't know anything about it" — that's where I got the line: "Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?"
How did you drag yourself out of it?
Traveling and experiencing lots of people who were much worse off than I was... So snap out of it! Change your life. Over the years I'd had this thing of adopting my family name for a while to try and distance myself, or growing the beard to say, "Let me be who I am now." I'm in show
business. I can wear a hat if I want to. I can wear a disguise.
And you've played around with other identities such as The Imposter.
I made him up when I was producing The Specials and they all had pseudonyms. It's the title of a song on Get Happy!! "When I said I was lying I might have been lying" — a paradox that still appeals to me, You can always change your mind. I've probably contradicted myself a hundred times in this interview. You're bound to. I don't rehearse what I say. Eventually I thought I've got to make a humorous song that gets into all this and that was "When I Was Cruel Number 2." It was about being in a social scene — some high-flown showbiz charity event — that I would have disdained at one point. But I started to see the humanity in the people there, and their frailty, and my own frailty.
All the same, the song does say, "I was cruel."
Yeah, I was. There are many things I'm regretful about, but none of them have involved any deliberate humiliation of anyone I've loved. I may have hurt people through my selfishness... but I'm not obliged to speak about that in public.
You've talked about quite a few songs that were hard to write but, generally, what do you see as the value of your music? What are you putting out there and what are you getting back?
I can tell you what it is that I've been saying, but I don't know what its value is because that's different to everybody... I'm trying to write from real experience something that will reflect other people's experience. I said a bunch of things when I was drunk and young and they got quoted back to me. Like "Everything's about revenge and guilt": I'd drunk 14 Pernods when I said that.
You're pictured in a current Visa ad in magazines. Have you changed your lifelong policy against allowing your music to be used in advertising?
I haven't yet had a manufacturer who's come to me and proposed using a song of mine where I thought it was funny enough to say yes, but... I have changed my mind. Everything's for sale. I think because the business is so strange now you have to be realistic. What do you want to do? Not play at all or find some way to do it? The boy's gotta have shoes. I want to play with the Imposters and that's a hard group to keep together, especially after I took six months paternity leave through to spring this year. But then Visa come to me and say, "We'll pay you to go and play clubs." You're kidding! That's great. I couldn't play clubs otherwise because I couldn't afford to pay the guys what they're worth. I'm not going to argue them down after 30 years on the road. So Visa's going to pay? I don't mind.
To conclude, it's reported that your latest legendary collaborator is Loretta Lynn.
John Carter Cash asked me down to Hendersonville, where he's built a studio on the back of his father's cabin, to write some songs with her. We wrote about eight in one day. At least started them, I mean. She's fantastic. She took six years off when her husband was going through his last illness, but she's reinvigorated now, I guess by working with Jack White. She's telling stories and pulling Out bits of paper with titles on them — she says, "How about this one: Welcome To Candytown, Sucker! Or Pardon Me, Madame, My Name Is Eve." I just finished that second one in the dressing-room before I went on tonight. Of course, it's about Adam's second wife, I almost sang it, but I wasn't quite certain I'd nailed it. So I've got plenty of new songs all right, but they're not "for my new record". I do what I do. I play. Just that. You know, it's the way it should be.